There are many kinds of customer communities, from fans on Facebook, to private communities that congregate on company forums. But what makes people join up? What keeps them coming back? How can you start getting your customer community engaged?

We asked five highly credentialed experts about this. They have practical advice and some profound insights on what makes amazing customer communities. Peggy Winton brings a brass-tacks practicality to her vision. Cheryl Lesser has real-world examples backing up everything she says. John Brunswick brings a strategic approach to the conversation. Tom Motzel is the most philosophical about the whole topic and has profound insight. Justin Schuster brings a wealth of experience to bear and delivers solid advice.

Billy Cripe: Customer communities don't just happen. What are the essential ingredients for the growth, then care and feeding of customer communities?

All of the experts agree that having practical, immediately useful content like How-Tos and answers to common but challenging questions of the community are necessary. They also point out that what matters means what matters to the audience, not the company that hosts and manages the community. The goal is creating and delivering value to the audience. The idea is that the audience goes to where their needs are met. If you provide more value, they stick around to participate with each other and with you.

pwinton.jpgPeggy Winton -- CMO AIIM International: To attract community members, the community must offer value: valuable education and valuable peer engagement. The more prescriptive the content the better. Folks are looking for assistance in doing their jobs/completing projects that used to be done by someone else. To the extent that the community content and peer contributions can help them get there faster, that's a winning ingredient.

As much as we'd like to think that communities can self-manage, there has to be an owner responsible for maintaining the integrity of the community with a regular and committed cadre of contributors. At AIIM, we call those people "Ambassadors."

clesser.jpgCheryl Lesser -- Intranet Consultant working with the Intranet Benchmarking Forum: Before a community session we make an effort to ensure the right participants are in attendance. We choose a hot topic (one that's getting a lot of play in our forums and such). Then we invite at least one "expert" and one "learner." This is key for setting the stage for a good back-and-forth. We ask the learners to send in their questions ahead of time to make sure the expert is prepared. Also we put the questions on a slide -- having them as a visual often prompts the other participants to ask questions of their own.

jbrunswick.jpgJohn Brunswick -- Enterprise Collaboration Architect working with Oracle: The foundation of the community must be anchored around a strict focus on the needs of the community users, not the organization hosting the community. This focus guides the creation of the community in a way that fosters the relationship between the community participants and organization -- delivering real value to the members.

In order to maintain and build the relationship, open communication is essential as the community grows and evolves, elevating the significance of transparency, sincerity and responsiveness. As communication has advanced, it is important to also understand that the engagement of members may now also take place outside of the actual community, through various social networks. The investment of quality community management effort is not trivial, but the benefits of the bonds created within the community can create a wealth of value for the organization and participants.

tmotzel.jpgTom Motzel -- Owner Tesserae Talent Strategies: Authenticity, Interaction, Contribution and Fun. Let me explain. First, authenticity: to build a community, you must be as passionate about the "cause" as those you hope to attract. It's important that your "community curator" has passion before social media expertise.

Second, interaction -- individuals join communities to interact with real people who share their passion. Third, contribution -- members want to learn from and contribute to others. If a community does not make YOU feel like an important member, you won't stick around.

Finally, fun -- engaging with online communities needs to feel more like going out with college friends than going to a meeting with colleagues.

jschuster.pngJustin Schuster -- VP Product Marketing at Lithium Technology: There's no one silver bullet for driving community growth. Healthy communities require a combination of traditional push marketing tactics as well as pull marketing strategies like search engine optimization and gamification. Leading brands are starting to embed links to community content in replies to posts on Twitter, Facebook, a Google+, which helps to scale direct response programs and increase community vibrancy.

BC: What are the major differences, challenges or opportunities between B2B customer communities and B2C customer communities?

Our experts found products and novelty matter most for B2C communities whereas practices and effectiveness predominate in B2B communities. They agreed that the airing of dirty laundry is a risk and that gaffes become much more public. But they agreed that these can also help with goals of transparency and authenticity, when authentically handled.

Peggy: Most B2C communities are focused around products; the conversations are mainly customer reviews or tips on better utilization. Given the growing power of the consumer, these communities have challenges in that they can become major "gripe sessions." It is critical to appoint a CLO (Chief Listening Officer) who can provide non-defensive responses to complaints.

In the B2B world, the content tends to be more about concepts and practices. The challenge there is that it's not often sexy. As stated above, the key is to provide very practical and relevant information according to members' roles and responsibilities.

John Brunswick agrees. He writes:

John: From a B2B standpoint, the design of a community experience may be less ambiguous than in the B2C space. As a broad generalization, most B2B communities are established to allow people to resolve issues or engage in a process. Their effectiveness could be measured on the basis of these factors.

B2C experiences are generally much richer around general exploration within the community and user generated content creation. This is because members are engaging at will, versus participating in order to arrive at a specific outcome. As most B2C communities are largely inclusive, they also may have to contend with very public customer service issues. This poses a challenge to management of the community, but also presents an opportunity to highlight the approach of an organization to resolving negative issues, that may ultimately work in their favor.

Cheryl takes a pragmatic approach.

Cheryl: We have found that it is important to remind participants from time to time that we're looking for interaction. Something as simple as identifying roles and titles helps. That way, people know who is on the customer side and who is on the company side. It seems simple but, doing this repeatedly helps to encourage participation. 

Tom points out some significant advantages of B2B customer communities and challenges faced by B2C communities.

Tom: B2B Communities have the advantage of being more intimate. These are likely people that you can talk to and interact with on a regular basis. A more symbiotic relationship that likely rewards contribution and involvement. B2C communities are more difficult to maintain because participation reflects an "infatuation" with product or service. How long does any individual stay committed to any particular product before something better (or life’s changing landscape) replaces it? B2B communities generally contribute to our "industrious" needs ... our "bottom line." B2C communities generally offer more of an entertainment value -- satisfying, but fleeting.

And Justin notes that B2B communities are often faster while B2C communities are often larger:

Justin: B2B communities typically have fewer participants than B2C communities, but they can be just as vital for a major brand. We often see collaboration across marketing and customer care teams emerge faster in B2B communities, particularly where brands are working to deliver an integrated customer experience.

BC: Any discussion of customer communities would be incomplete without acknowledging the amazing changes that the software landscape has undergone. From news groups of the early web to Facebook pages to tailored and integrated CRM systems, the evolution of community software has been profound. So how much help does community software actually deliver to a community manager?

Our experts agreed that a successful community quickly outpaces the manual abilities of any individual manager, and that the software should be an enabler for the community rather than something that gets in the way of conversation, sharing and engagement.

Peggy: For a vibrant and dynamic community, you've got to be able to scale or the manual processes will never get managed. However, these tools come in all shapes and sizes. Usually, the members themselves are none-the-wiser about the backend tools. In my experience, they are much more interested in the content than the bells and whistles, particularly since 80% of them will NOT regularly contribute to content or conversation.

Cheryl: Community management software should foster channels of conversation rather than erecting barriers between the “audience” and the “moderator.”

For example, when we’re engaged in a real-time event in our community, we're in the background, messaging participants, asking them if they have anything to share. Instead of doing a message blast, or a “sticky thread” (like "Feel free to join the conversation!") we always tailor the message with the names of specific participants, names of companies, and any background info we have about them. For example: “Hi Sue, would you be willing to share your experiences/insights about your recent SharePoint upgrade at Acme?” This bridges the divide and almost makes the technology fade into the background, which is a wonderful thing for vibrant community participation.

John: Software can help supply structure, comprised of common community capabilities, for community managers to extend experiences to their members. As communication capabilities have evolved, user experience patterns similar to the Facebook Wall, Dropbox like file sharing, and discussion forums, are often readily identified by users. By combining these patterns into a prepackaged solution, this can allow community managers to spend time focusing on the overall experience, content and communications that will be relevant for their members. At Plumtree (software focused exclusively on portals), the mantra of "No Empty Portals" existed to remind us that as great as supporting software can be -- success is all about making experiences relevant and valuable to our users.

Tom: Community Software can be a powerful game changer, but only when you have an authentic community of passionate people who are aligned around a well-defined vision and mission. Outside of those circumstances, it's just another communication gateway that generally fractures our continuity as we desperately try to keep up with new tools.

Justin: Of course we believe the software is critical, and the right tools can mean a world of difference when it comes to making the community blend seamlessly with your website, driving vibrancy, and proving ROI. The right services expertise is equally important, however, and there are many best practices that can make the difference between success and failure. This is why Lithium offers a range of services and even offers a certification program for community managers at this year's conference.

In the end our experts agreed that it takes as much imagination as anything to cultivate a great customer community. Community managers cannot be human versions of software. Their greatest strength is precisely their humanity, mistakes, misspellings and all.  It is precisely this humanizing effect that great community managers have which keeps customers coming back. They can find answers almost anywhere on the internet. But a customer community is both a place where they can be heard as well as find answers and feel valued as a peer on a similar journey by those wonderful community managers.

Editor Note: When Billy isn't thinking about how to engage customers, he's looking at how to engage employees. Read his Managing Employee Engagement When You Have No Employees